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October 5, 2015

2015 WG ANNUAL MEETING: Set Sail for San Diego

The Grand Del Mar in San Diego will serve as the elegant backdrop for the 90th Annual Meeting of the Western Growers Association.

Geographically, the association has not moved that far since its first meeting back in 1926, which was held about 100 miles east as the crow flies in Brawley, Calif., at the Planters Hotels.  But in every other way, the organization has moved significantly since those 26 companies came together to form the Western Growers Protective Association.

During this 90th anniversary of that mid-1920s event, hundreds of people will come together to celebrate agriculture’s progress, to network with potential customers and clients, to learn about a plethora of fascinating topics from some of the best minds in agriculture and economics, and to break bread and enjoy social events with friends and colleagues.  The three-day event will be held November 8–11, and promises to have something for everyone.

“Overall, the 90th Annual Meeting is a great opportunity to have fun, strengthen our bonds and address the critical issues and opportunities facing our industry,” said WG Chairman Vic Smith in a letter he penned to the association membership.  “Thanks for your continued support of Western Growers and the agricultural industry.  We look forward to seeing you in San Diego!”


Top Notch Speakers

Noted Fox News personality Stuart Varney is expected to get the Annual Meeting started off in a big way as the featured speaker during the Monday, Nov. 9, Political Action Committee luncheon.  Varney is an economist by trade and a media personality somewhat by accident who believes there will be a dramatic jump in the American economy over the next several years, as the Republicans take control of the White House.

“I think we are about to see 4-5 percent growth on an annual basis,” he said in mid-August.  “We are going to see a change in policy as the Obama (economic) model is cast aside and a more Reaganite philosophy is adopted with smaller government and lower tax rates.”

The host of the Varney & Co. show that airs every weekday from 9 am to noon (Eastern time) on the Fox Business Network predicts the Republicans will win the presidential election in November of 2016.  He is confident that will happen and believes the stock market will rally in 2016 in anticipation of that election result.

Varney said it makes no difference which Republican wins the nomination, and eventually the White House, as each of them has a plan for economic growth that is far better than the doldrums he believes we are in.  Specifically, he expects the elimination or significant reduction in taxes on foreign profits by American corporations will drive the economic growth that he is forecasting.  He said American companies have billions of dollars in profits parked overseas waiting to be re-invested in the United States.  When the tax rates on these profits are reduced or eliminated, he believes a significant portion of that money will come home and spur our economy.

Varney’s 40-year career as an economic journalist got started quite by chance.  After graduating from the London School of Economics, the British-born Varney hitchhiked around the world ending up in Hong Kong.  He lucked into a job as an economic reporter and repeated that path a few years later in San Francisco when he landed a spot on the first American business show.  He subsequently joined CNN and then left in 2001 to host CNBC’s Wall Street Journal Editorial Board with Stuart Varney.  In 2004, he joined Fox News as a business reporter and has appeared on many different shows besides his own.

Varney does have some connection to his audience as he is a tree farmer in the Catskills of New York where he grows hardwood timber used for high end furniture, such as black cherry and red oak trees.

Futurist David Evans, formerly of Cisco, is the keynote speaker for the Major Luncheon that will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 10.  He boldly predicts that within two decades there will not be a single human harvesting fruits and vegetables in the United States.  He sees a world where robotics will be widely used to conquer the laborious tasks, such as picking fruits and vegetables.

Since his departure from Cisco, Evans has been working on technology to connect all the machines in your home.  Wouldn’t it be great, he said, if when you drove into your garage that action alerted the heater to turn on, the doors to unlock, the music to play and the oven to preheat.  And the reverse happened when you pulled out of your garage in the morning and closed the garage door….your house would automatically go into shut-down mode.

His startup company is called Stringify and, as the name suggests, endeavors to string everything together within your house.

Titled “Thought for Food,” his speech will analyze the challenges facing the agricultural industry and discuss the major advances that are coming down the pike to solve those challenges.  Evans believes a technological revolution is lurking around the corner for the fruit and vegetable industry.

Evans has a history of accurate predictions.  More than 20 years ago, he identified the World Wide Web as a place that would profoundly change commerce.  He foresaw the Internet facilitating online shopping, and was one of the first, if not the first, to coin the phrase the Internet of Things (IoT).  That basically refers to the practice of placing computer chips in everything—your car, your refrigerator, your light switches, your medicine cabinet—so that all of these inputs can interconnect for the betterment of humankind.

Evans said the Internet of Things, which he has since updated to the Internet of Everything, will have a profound impact on agriculture. He said this “technological tsunami” will completely change how agriculture produces its products and conducts business.  He believes vertical factory farming is on the horizon.

During that same luncheon Chairman Smith of J.V. Smith Companies, Yuma, Ariz., will take a look back at his year at the helm of WG and comment on many of the issues confronting the fresh produce industry.


Fascinating Workshops

The knowledge and information the attendees garner from the featured speakers will only be enhanced by their participation at the workshops.



Chef Shirley Chung, who is the chef owner of Twenty Eight Modern Chinese Cuisine restaurant in Irvine, Calif., will be the featured presenter at a cooking demonstration that will be held Monday morning, Nov. 9.

Born and raised in Beijing, China, Chef Shirley, as she is called, came to the United States at age 17, graduated from college with a business degree and began working in the Silicon Valley in the business world.  In her late 20s, she decided to become a chef.  After being trained in both French and Italian cuisine, she started her cooking career in the Napa Valley under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, perhaps the finest restaurant in Northern California.  She has since worked and opened restaurants for renowned chefs such as Keller, Guy Savoy, Jose Andres and Mario Batali.  In fact, she open Keller’s Boudin restaurant in Las Vegas about five years ago.  She was a finalist for season 11 Top Chef New Orleans and Top Chef Duel.  Before Top Chef, she was the executive chef for China Poblano.  Under her guidance, China Poblano was nominated for the Best New Restaurant Award by James Beard in 2011.

Last year she opened Twenty Eight Restaurant as the first operation she can call her own.  She calls her style “modern American cuisine with a Chinese soul” and said it is very heavily oriented toward vegetables.  “I love vegetables so much,” she said.  “They are sexier than protein.  There are so many textures and varieties and so versatile.”

She likes to use fresh produce, concentrating on its seasonal aspect, noting that there is no seasonal component for protein.



Expert panelists will discuss the increasing calls to require “GMO-free” labels on fresh produce and the implications in the marketplace.  The panel was still being assembled at press time but for a preview of the topics that will be under discussion, check out Tom Nassif’s President’s Notes on page 4 of this issue.



This Shark Tank-like workshop will allow entrepreneurs to pitch their offerings to a team of judges as well as the audience to determine the top AgTech innovations.  Our team of judges will be comprised of Robby Barkley of Barkley Ag Enterprises, Steve Barnard of Mission Produce, Neill Callis of Turlock Fruit Company, Edwin Camp of DM Camp and Sons, Dave Petrocco Sr. of Petrocco Farms and Bridget Rotticci of Bengard Ranch.



In California, legal and political conflict over water rights and allocations has erupted as the ongoing drought tests the state’s complex system of laws and water districts.  In Arizona, water managers have started planning for historic reductions from the Colorado River even as the state’s political leaders must plan for the water demands of continued urban growth.  A roundtable of water experts will discuss water rights and how the drought is bringing unprecedented public scrutiny to what many farmers consider an iron-clad right.  The panel was still being assembled at press time.


Entertainment, Fun & Award of Honor


A Party in the Paddock.  If you’ve been to Annual Meeting in San Diego before, you may remember the energetic, creative performances of The Pink Flamingos.  If you haven’t seen this troupe perform, get ready for a creative, once-in-a-lifetime performance you won’t want to miss.  You can catch The Pink Flamingos at the Suppliers’ Event on Monday, Nov. 9.


Award Dinner

Laugh with Comedian Tom Papa at the Award Dinner.  With more than 20 years in stand-up comedy, Tom Papa has been successful in film, TV and radio as well as on stage.  You may have heard his hour-long stand-up special Tom Papa: Freaked Out, which was named one of the 10 Best Comedy Albums of 2013 by  Or you may have seen in on The New Adventures of Old Christine, Come to Papa or The Knick.  Earlier this year, you were able to catch him in the Chris Rock film Top Five and as the host of the new Fox game show Boom! He’s a regular on most major late-night shows, too.  Come hear his unique brand of humor in person at the Award Dinner.



Bob Gray will be honored by Western Growers for his many years of service to the organization and the fresh produce industry.  Currently, he is president of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, after having had a distinguished career with Duda Family Farms.

After studying English literature in his college days, including a Marshall Scholarship for graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Gray expected that he would pursue a career in higher education.  “Get my masters, my Ph.D. and then teach college.”

But life has a way of interrupting the best laid plans, and instead, Gray has devoted himself to agricultural endeavors for the past 40-plus years.  He grew up in Yuma, Ariz., and so was always around the fresh produce industry, including summer job work.  Gray received a dual major in English and philosophy from the University of Arizona in 1971, and then went off to Great Britain to continue his studies.  Following the completion of his Master’s degree work, Gray was accepted into the doctoral program at Colombia University in New York, but couldn’t afford it at the time, so deferred acceptance so that he could recharge his bank account through employment in the industry he knew best.

In the mid-1970s, Paul Couture offered him an office job during the short San Joaquin Valley melon deal.  Gray said his work was called “running the sheet,” which was basically keeping track of inventory manually by logging in sales and balancing them against the day’s harvest.  Soon he landed an entry level management position with Ed Senini at his Yuma lettuce company.  For several years, his vacation from that position was spent “running the sheet” at Couture Farms.

It was somewhere along this time that Gray stopped deferring his acceptance into Columbia’s doctoral program and realized a career in the fresh produce industry was his calling.  In 1980, he joined a startup operation in the Salinas Valley begun by the Florida-based Duda Company.  He stayed with the firm for almost 30 years, rising to the level of CEO of Duda Farm Fresh Foods.

During that time he was a valued member of the Western Growers Board of Directors for many years, serving as chairman of the board in 2008.

Shortly after departing Duda in 2009, Gray transitioned to his current position in the Ag Leadership role.  It is this leadership role that has given Gray so much satisfaction over the past six years.  He is planning to step down from the position in the middle of 2016, which give the Ag Leadership Foundation plenty of time to find a successor.  Gray is very proud of the work he has done at the Foundation.  Applications for the latest California Ag Leadership class are at a 14-year high.  And, he said the permanent endowment has grown by a factor of five.